Translated by Aina Pavolini Taylor.
Set in the early 1900’s, The Fortunes of Wangrin follows the life of Wangrin, and interpreter for the French colonisers who hustles both the colonial French and his own people in order to make money and to get the life he wants.
Wangrin as a character is one of those loveable rogue kind of characters. He’s charming, corrupt, a grifter, and an opportunist. It’s admirable in a way how he thinks up these schemes that uses his privileged position of power, being an interpreter means he’s very close to high-ranking French officials and has access to the booking, records and other official documents that he can sneakily use as he wishes.
Part of Wangrin’s ultimate downfall – like almost any corrupt and opportunistic character – is that he’s greedy. He makes a lot of enemies, some with a lot more power than him, and when there’s moments where he should stop looking for the next big money-making scheme, or stop trying to manipulate someone one, he just ignores them and carries on. It’s like he’s so confident in his own abilities that he can’t foresee anyway what he’d lose.
I liked the fact that part of The Fortunes of Wangrin was set during the First World War. Being a Brit a lot of the media I’ve consumed featuring WWI is from a British or Western prospective but here, it’s seen from the French point of view, and from the point of view of the colonised. In history class we briefly learnt about how people of various British colonised countries were (or weren’t) involved in the conflict so seeing it from the French colonised citizens point of view was interesting. How Wangrin didn’t have to go and fight due to his job but so many other Black people were sent to the coast to fight but also for the white Frenchmen in charge, the day-to-day aspects of running this country wasn’t that affected by the war.
I liked how The Fortunes of Wangrin shows the realities of a colonised country. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a story set during the colonial period and seeing how Wangrin has to deal with white bureaucrats, and balance the religion and culture he grew up in with the new set ideals by the French was interesting. He’s smart and sneaky but that can’t always save him from the double standards imposed by the colonisers on him and his fellow countrymen.
The Fortunes of Wangrin is an interesting read. It’s also often surprisingly funny as Wangrin can be witty and talk himself out of conflicts in an amusing way. The humour makes it easier to read as some of the language and writing style can be a bit dry.